Ambitious move

With the passage by both houses of Parliament, the much-debated food security bill is set to become law very soon. The bill certainly marks an important act of the state’s social compact with the people, as it makes right to food a constitutional right.

In a country where hunger is a daily reality for many millions of people ensuring a minimum availability of food at affordable prices is a worthy idea. The bill aims to secure two-thirds of the country (75 per cent of the rural population and 50 per cent of the urban population) against hunger by giving them the right to demand 5 kg of food grains per month at rates varying between Re 1 and Rs 3 per kg. It has the widest reach among all the rights-based legislations enacted by the UPA government.

But a road paved with good intentions does not always lead to the best places. Though the bill could be politically and socially right,  it has come at a wrong time for the country. Its impact and consequences would be damaging in many ways. The fiscal situation has dangerously gone out of hand in the last few years. The additional expenditure by way of food subsidy, which is expected to go up from  Rs 90,000 crore to about Rs 1,30,000 crore because of the bill, will  make finances go more haywire.  It is not what the economy needs at a time of poor growth, depreciating rupee and increasing external pressures. The bill will send out a message to the world that the government is not serious in mending the difficult financial situation. The implementation of the bill will be far from perfect because the public distribution system is nonexistent or is in a state of disarray in most states.  he food grain storage facilities and transport infrastructure are already bad and the additional burden will make them worse. There is also a possibility that the likely increase in open market prices of food grains because of higher procurement will make them unaffordable to many intended beneficiaries. There are also other negatives like greater indirect costs and likely changes in crop patterns.

Electoral considerations have persuaded the government to press ahead with the bill now. The same considerations have forced the  opposition  parties to support it too. It can only be hoped that the economic situation improves by the time it is fully implemented and the implementation system gets more serious attention.

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